After Ruth Druart’s previous WW2 novel While Paris Slept I’d been so embedded in the story that I felt emotionally drained from the terror and trauma experienced by her characters. While that novel gave us WW2 from the perspective of a French police officer and a Jewish mother, her latest novel comes from a very interesting and possibly less explored voice of the conflict. Our novel centres around young French woman and a German soldier who cross each other’s paths due to a love of books. We roam from Paris to Brittany and to England, hearing the stories of our main characters from both points of view at different times in their lives. However, the novel starts several years later with Joséphine, a young woman who has just finished her baccalaureate and is looking forward to summer. She wants to visit England because it’s where the Beatles are from, but her mum Élise and the woman they lodge with, Soizcic seem very resistant. It’s the usual teenage argument, made all the more dramatic because the women are carrying a huge secret. One that will be uncovered if Joséphine keeps to her plan to find her birth certificate, so she can obtain a passport. She intends to go with or without her mother’s permission. Élise had always promised herself to tell Joséphine the truth she’s been hiding, but the time never seemed right and besides it was easier to keep the illusion. Élise has always told her daughter that her father’s name was Fredéric and he died in the war. The truth is more complex and shrouded in the secrecy and shame of another time. If Joséphine finds out, will she ever forgive her mother?
Our story moves back in time to the 1940’s when Élise is living in an apartment in occupied Paris with her Mum and younger sister Isabelle. She hates ‘the Boche’ who have taken over her beautiful city and filled it with fear and hatred. Jewish families have disappeared and just as hated as the German occupiers are people who collaborate with the enemy, whether they’re bar owners whose tills ring with German money or the women who serve as their mistresses. Élise has noticed them walking with officers in the gardens, wearing perfume and sporting real stockings rather than a painted and often wobbly line drawn down the back of the legs. Élise has a secret, she has been working at an orphanage and helping Jewish children escape across the border. I loved the bravery of this young woman and her ability to see most people as human beings, at a time when the hatred of others due to their race or religion was at it’s devastating worst. She meets a young German soldier in her friend Monsieur Le Bolzec’s bookshop and at first is horrified that the elderly bookseller is finding sympathy for him. Sébastian may sound German, but his mother was French and his fluency in the language means he’s working in an office translating letters. Élise is cool towards him at first, but then he warns her that she’s in danger. She has been helping Jewish children pass from an orphanage and over the boarder. Sébastian translates a letter denouncing the orphanage, he keeps it and warns Élise, even organising a car to remove the remaining children. This act of service and his willingness to put himself in grave danger brings them closer together, but will anyone accept their feelings for each other.
Ironically it’s the danger of war that brings these two characters together, but the liberation of Paris that will tear them apart. The author’s research is impeccable and I learned things I hadn’t realised about the war and particularly it’s aftermath. I had some idea of the treatment meted out by the French on women thought to be collaborators, but Ruth Druart’s vivid description brought out a huge sense of injustice in me. These women made choices due to their situation: if a German soldier approached me to be his mistress, I might do it if my children were starving or I’d lost my home. There was no mercy or insight into why such a choice might be made. I was also surprised at how long the British kept prisoners of war beyond the ceasing of hostilities. The Geneva Convention states that they should be released immediately, but here we see men kept for three years beyond the war ending. I think the author really captured the chaos of an occupying force retreating and how people have become displaced from their homes, their families and their lovers, especially where the relationship is controversial. People lost each other for decades – my mother-in-law was taken out of the Warsaw Ghetto when she was a child and was taken to England, separated from both parents. Her father looked for her and his wife straight after the war with no luck and eventually settled in America and moved on with his life, coming to terms with the fact they had probably been killed. They were still alive though and his wife was finally reunited with their daughter in England and her father’s other family in America. Druart shows how our links to each other can be lost, but for Élise there are particular betrayals that have kept her apart from Sébastian . Betrayals that are hard to forgive. I found this part of the book so poignant and I loved how Paris needed time to heal, both it’s buildings and it’s people. They had adjusted to occupation and now must rebuild their city, bringing back it’s joi de vive. As Élise observes the difference war has made to her beloved city I could almost hear the oppressive sound of jackboots echoing off the buildings and reminding every citizen they are no longer free.
I was drawn to Sébastian and truly understood his feelings of oppression. He was no more free than Élise, forced to join the Hitler Youth, he was trained as a soldier so had no choice but to serve. It was so moving to see him post-war in an English cinema watching film of what the Allies found when they liberated Auschwitz. He his horrified and is filled with guilt for serving a leader who could do this to others. He knows he is different, but to a Frenchman or an Englishman there is no difference between him and the SS; they are all Nazis and are all responsible. He carries that shame with him into all he does. I also felt for Élise and her loneliness, because despite having Joséphine and their friend Soizcic she has a solitary existence. I hoped for a happy ending for her, but I won’t spoil your reading pleasure by revealing what does happen in Joséphine’s timeline. I urge you to read it, because it has real impact. Hearing the voice of the enemy is unusual and impresses upon us that no matter what side we’re compelled to be on we’re all human. We don’t choose who we fall in love with and that love never dies, no matter how much time has passed or how far apart we are.
Published by Headline 7th June 2022.
Meet the Author
Living in Paris for the last thirty years inspired me to write, and my debut novel, While Paris Slept, came out in 2021, followed by The Last Hours in Paris, to be released in July 2022. Both books are set during the occupation of World War II, a time which intrigued me as I imagined the French having to live and work alongside the occupiers.
I love the power of story, and believe that sharing stories from different perspectives and different backgrounds can help us understand the world better. Having studied psychology at Leicester University, I have always been interested in the workings of the mind, and especially in what motivates people. I find people fascinating and love creating my own characters, each one flawed and touching in their own way.
I don’t believe in the single story, and in my books I like to present different perspectives, leaving the reader to make up their own mind as the characters face moral dilemmas and difficult choices. I hope you enjoy reading them.